Trying to Define Happiness

This post builds on my recent blog, Confessions of an Addict, which discusses our societal addiction to happiness, how it is misguided and has consequences for all. In that post, as a friend highlighted, I failed to define happiness. Here, I attempt to address that oversight by considering two conceptions of happiness, discussing their implications and how society’s actions show that ‘Happiness = Pleasure’ dominates. In my next post, I hope to extend this argument to ‘Happiness = Pleasure = Money’.


  • This only applies to people who have enough money to meet basic needs
  • For this topic, I wrote in a more logical style, let me know your thoughts on it
  • Finally, whilst I think I am right and please argue otherwise, I hope I do not sound sanctimonious. Please remember, as always, I am a hypocrite!

If only it were so simple

These are from the Cambridge Dictionary:

This circularity is problematic, although it does add weight to my assertion ‘Happiness = Pleasure’. Pleasure is an easier term to define and I would refer you to the one I used in my previous post. Pleasure is a short-term, reactionary feeling that feels ‘oh-so-satisfying’.

Happiness is altogether another beast. The Ancient Greeks were stumped in defining their equivalent but a nicer sounding term of ‘Eudaimonia’. The great Aristotle only got so far as equating it to ‘doing and living well’. Today’s greatest philosophical minds continue this tussle as prominent thinker Dr Pharell L. Williams writes:

‘Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth. Because I’m happy. Clap along if you know what happiness is to you’

It is evident that happiness cannot be singularly defined. Instead, I would vouch that there are two broad conceptions of how to define happiness. (For a more qualified and insightful analysis, please see this article by two Nobel Prize winners, Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, here).

Type A: Happiness = pleasure – that smile-inducing feeling

Type B: Happiness = meaning – an emotional balance, a contentedness, a sense of having contributed beyond yourself, a fulfilment in your life.

The challenge is there is no survey information on this question and even if there was, people are unlikely to be truthful just like in income tax surveys. Many of those who espouse type-B act along the lines of type-A which contributes to our societal to addiction to type-A. As such, how can we ever assess what people consider as the happiness they pursue?

I know it when I see it

 Just like hard-core pornography, which a US Supreme Court Justice once gave this description to, happiness is something for which ‘I know it when I see it’. Consider the following propositions:

1.  A life filled with ‘Happiness’ is what most people want

2. Happiness is the result of ‘certain objects and experiences’

3. Actions, mental or physical, are required to obtain these ‘objects and experiences’

 If 1, 2 & 3 hold then it follows that most people pursue actions to obtain ‘certain objects and experiences’ which hopefully result in their happiness. I extend this further with these propositions, justified later:

4. X actions lead to type-A happiness, X = A. Y actions lead to type-B happiness, Y = B

5. A human has two finite resources, time and effort, to facilitate X or Y and as such, there is often a trade-off between X and Y

6. Where there is choice, people’s choice of X vs Y reveals their preference of A vs B

Taking all of these together, we can, therefore, analyse people’s actions to ascertain the ‘type of happiness’ they are pursuing.

50 years of control

What actions can we assess? From birth, you can gleefully shit your pants and cry all the time but soon enough, even your parents think you are more of a pain than cute. If school doesn’t teach you to function in society, you get sent away for three years to a specialised institution full of fellow delinquents. After this, for the next 50 years of your life, you are largely in control until your children deem you unfit to function in society and chose the extract revenge by sending you to institutionalised in a ‘care home’.

This great article has loads more such graphics

Thus, we can narrow a deliberate pursuit of happiness to these 50 years. During this time, life has four key components: work, relationships, hobbies and finally, obligations. Obligations are not out of choice and therefore reveal little about our preferences. For hobbies, the Cambridge dictionary defines them as ‘activities that someone does for pleasure when they are not working’ and it is clear they largely fall into type-A happiness. As such, I concentrate on work and relationships.

Life’s big choices

4. X actions lead to type-A happiness, X = A. Y actions lead to type-B happiness, Y = B

Type-A happiness, conceived as pleasure, is something money can buy! Money to buy durable goods, like a car or iPhone (somewhat); nondurable goods, like chocolate or in the future a ‘happiness drug’ and experience, like a trip abroad. X = Money = A. For more options, the Barenaked Ladies sing it best, ‘If I had a $1,000,000’

Great song!

Type-B happiness, conceived as meaning, is an intangible concept and as such, money cannot buy it! In the bestselling 1964 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, wrote about the importance of meaning – it was the reason that some survived and others died in camps. As Jonathan Lewis writes in his fantastic book, ‘Fighting the good fight is utterly gratifying – completing and comforting. I’m a happier person because I’m a social entrepreneur’. This fantastic article speaks about meaning in greater depth. This form of happiness largely comes from spending our time meaningfully and this entails finding meaningful work and relationships. Y = Meaning = B.

5. A human has two finite resources, time and effort, to facilitate X or Y and as such, there is often a trade-off between X and Y

Endowed with a finite amount of time and effort, people have the following imperfect trade-offs:

  • Money vs Meaningful Relationships

‘Quality time’ is key to building strong and lasting relationships with friend and family. Quantity is not everything, quality is a very important element. Money can purchase experiences to facilitate quality but it is neither necessary nor sufficient; instead, effort is. The more time and effort expended at work to generate X, the less you have to build Y with family and friends. Returning late and tired from work may make you more money but it also makes it much harder to spend ‘quality time’ with those you care about.

  • Money vs Meaningful Work

Money: There are two key determinants of the wage for work: demand and supply. Supply is increasing in the lower requirements, i.e. more can do basic manual labour than machine learning, which increases competition and depresses wages in low-skilled jobs. For low-skilled workers, with a necessity to make a minimum to support their family, they have little choice of work and are stuck in Quadrant 3.

Demand is driven by the ‘internal market’ of you and millions of others who place a monetary value, reflecting their willingness to pay. This monetary value depends on how much you demand the good and your supply of funds, i.e. how ‘costly’ £1 is to them. Differences in individual preferences create differences in ‘internal demand’ but the market is strongly distorted by the asymmetry of wealth. In essence, a rich person may need a second home a lot less than a homeless person needs shelter but with sufficient inequality, the rich person pays more. They set the market and this asymmetry means that the market price is not a fair reflection of the social value created.

Meaning: Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, writes that in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self. This frequently takes the form of addressing form of inequality – based on opportunities, resources, religion, security, treatment, education…..

In such a market, meaningful work creates high social value but, as it caters to the less well-off, it has a low monetary value as in Quadrant 4. Think of the NGOs, the ‘pro-bono’ cases in law and most prominently the huge wage disparity of nurses and bankers, this is a philosophical discussion by Michael Sandel on it. As a result, generally, there is a trade-off between money and meaning at work.


6. Where there is choice, people’s choice of X vs Y reveals their preference of A vs B

For people’s choices to reveal their preferences requires that they made this choice ‘freely’. In our unequal societies, the ‘birth lottery’ largely determines your opportunities and forsakes poor people to low-skill, money and meaning occupations. The choice between money and meaning therefore only exists for those fortunate enough to have lots of opportunities. Therefore, a proper analysis should focus on these high-skilled individuals.

Personal Evidence

A majority of the incredibly talented individuals I know have chosen for the short-term to pursue money and stuck in Quadrant 1. These are not greedy people. In fact, other than being cleverer than me, they are quite similar and want to contribute to others. Unfortunately, their choice is bound by a natural risk aversion and an additional perceived ‘risk’ with pursuing meaning. What is this ‘risk’?

In a society obsessed with type-A happiness, one in which money is supposed to be the determinant of your happiness, a low-money and high-meaning job is a risk. Why would you choose a lower income job in an NGO, charity or public sector instead of a £70k salary in a bank? Only a fool would do so! The fact that an attempt at meaning at the cost of money is considered a risk is a testament to society’s obsession with money and type-A happiness.

Societal Evidence

Research shows that ‘enriching’ careers are not all that enriching. They bring money but tend to come at the cost of relationships and enjoying work. Those who are fortunate enough to have options to try and solve some of humanity’s problems seem willing to sacrifice their ‘best’ years stuck in an office becoming an expert at excel. (Although, excel is amazing).

85% of people worldwide would admit that they are not engaged in their job, in Japan this depressing figure rises to 94%. These are the staggering results from data collected over 140 countries and by the reputable polling group, Gallup, in 2017. In 2013, Gallup found that 63 percent are “not engaged”—or simply unmotivated and unlikely to exert extra effort—while the remaining 24 percent are “actively disengaged,” or truly unhappy and unproductive, more here. The London School of Business and Finance finds that ‘an overwhelming 47pc want to change jobs and more than one in five are looking to career hop in the next 12 months’, more here. Whilst many of this 85 % do not have much choice, a substantial do and clearly chose X over Y. Fortunately, ‘millennials’ are slowly changing tack.

A Tentative Conclusion

Happiness cannot be singularly defined and nor will surveys provide truthful answers. However, maybe, people’s choices reveal the type of happiness they pursue. For our adult life, our critical choice revolves around the trade-offs between money and meaning in work and relationships. From limited data, my observations and hopefully your own, it seems that most choose money over meaning. In the pursuit of X over Y, society reveals a preference for type-A rather than type-B happiness. Therefore, it seems, ‘Happiness = Pleasure’.

Still not convinced you should join the HAHA (Happiness Addiction re-Habilitation Anonymous)? My next blog post will cover why society thinks Pleasure = Money and despite that, why Happiness =/ Money.


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A hypocrite who enjoys engaging with ideas, challenging my own and exploring new ones.

4 thoughts on “Trying to Define Happiness”

  1. Once again, an engaging read. Since you ask — it could have been a tad shorter.
    Also wonder if the ‘risk’ you refer to is a cohort effect such that millennials like yourself, by more commonly opting for socially meaningful careers/work, will change the way these ambitions are perceived, and make it more mainstream. The world would certainly benefit from such a shift!
    Keep on blogging!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I found this very thought provoking! I appreciated the logical explanation style for this one and looking forward to reading some of the links.

    I think the next post will address some of the things I am wondering about with this post. For example, there is the problem that not everyone subscribes to the same definition of happiness as has been laid out. So there will be salary hunters who have real beliefs that it’s meaningful and important to be supporting the economy and driving business innovation and so on. I suspect you will argue that they’ve fallen foul to the societal obsession with money and are wrong. But it’s quite hard to argue that one world view is correct for sure, isn’t it?

    2 things I ask for further clarification on:

    1) I didn’t fully understand the rationale behind your decision to focus on only rich and ‘high-skilled’ individuals with lots of opportunities. (Does high-skilled here mean highly-educated?) Someone choosing between being a nurse or a secretary has still chosen freely but you seem to have discounted them.

    Also, if the more money you have, the more choices you have, then having money is extremely important for happiness even when you have enough to meet basic needs.

    2) Why have you discounted hobbies from contributing to real (type B) happiness? Dictionary definitions aren’t really sufficient. Sports, art, music, travel, literature etc aren’t to do with money (necessarily) and definitely contribute to one of happiness or pleasure – up for debate, I suppose, but still worth debating. Why can’t I work my highly-paid, long hour job and then create meaningful, important artwork that makes me truly happy?


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this Devina, much appreciated as always.

      Firstly, there is no singular definition and I was not arguing that my view is correct but that if were to define happiness, and take a democratic majority based approach then people’s actions suggest they are going for happiness of type-A. As you correctly anticipate, I really do not think anyone who goes for a salary does so to ‘support the economy’ or drive ‘innovation’. ‘The economy’ is too nebulous a concept to believe in, if instead you mean to support others economically then charity is a stronger answer. ‘Innovation’ is created by those who want to change an idea or have a different vision of the world, rarely by someone pursuing money.

      Secondly, I know this is by no means a holistic and full argument and as such, there is a lot missing. This is because I cannot write more than 2,000 words without losing most readers (maybe not you) and I have been told that is too long as well. As such, I have to cull and concentrate. I did this and you are right to point out the limitations of this for both points 1) and 2). Your comment has given me an opportunity to communicate it better, thanks!

      For the 1), for simplicity, I think the analysis is best made when people are making the ‘free’-ist choice. By high-skilled I did mean high-educated, sorry that’s econ jargon. There are those who freely chose between a nurse vs a higher paying secretary but they have to have a base level of being well-off to not think ‘I need that money to cover my children’s basic living costs’. I chose to take the purest example, i.e very well educated top university students who can go into many many different career paths, to assess what was their preference. This preference need not equally apply to different levels on the scale of education but I think it would roughly do and if anything, be stronger the lower skill. However, their choices are constrained.

      For money & choices – its a great example where choices actually make us less happy. Barry Shwartz’s book and his TED talk captures this perfectly. A lot of research shows that money’s effect on happiness becomes very small past a threshold, around £55k for household (still a lot).

      2) I was already above 2k words on this blog post so, in relation to hobbies – you are completely right. I tried the definition as an easy cop-out and just like with the other terms, a definition reveals little. At the least, however, I would say that the longer-hour & more exhausting job then the less time & effort for a hobby of type-B happiness.

      Let me know what you think!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cool, thanks Arnav!

        Blog suggestion: please explain why the concept of the economy is nebulous, and what your take on taxes vs charity is.

        Liked by 2 people

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